Well, the first week or so of the London Literature has most definitely been something…special. This is my first time at the festival and it has been so much more than I was expecting, not that I knew what I was expecting anyway.
The first magical event I attended was on Monday 5th July, in the Purcell Room at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Rushing there all the way from Tooting, I wondered what it would be like to watch such giants in the world of poetry, not just spoken word, as John Agard, Val Bloom, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze and Grace Nichols are. Having studied the poems of both John Agard and Grace Nichols in such a detached manner in my secondary education, it was quite strange to think I would be able to see and hear them perform their work in real life.Anyway, where was I?…oh yes, Tooting(Don’t ask me why I was in Tooting, please)! Unfortunately, there was a bit of traffic jam which made me just that little bit embarrassingly late and you can’t imagine me stumbling in 007-style into the Queen Elizabeth Hall and grabbing my ticket, running to the Purcell Room just in time to catch the majority of Lemn Sissay’s introduction. At the risk of sounding like an idiot, it is fair to say that at least for me these masters of spoken word need no introduction. We started off with Val Bloom, whose resonating poem, Legacy written for a project on the slave trade for the Arts Council, blew us away and her children’s poem Sandwich had us all taking part and shouting out in childish glee at the end of each verse ‘SANDWICH!’ and her song Pinda Cake had us singing along to the chorus combined with some very uncomplicated choreography. Up next was Grace Nichols who read from a series of poems following the persona of the Fat Black Woman who rejects the ideal of beauty. She also read amongst other things from a poem, Weeping Woman, from her collection, Picasso, I want My Face Back. She then read Hurricane Hits England which I knew so well, from my secondary education, and this reading somehow made everything I had not understood about the poem before clear. She then read the humorous Advice on crossing the road in Deli, which was received with much…mirth? What’s the right word?….Never mind. At this point there was a small uneventful break and we came back to be treated with even more delights. John Agard, one of my heroes in poetry in general since before my GCSEs, performed his poem, Rat Race taking on the semblance of a rat before our very eyes. I don’t know if I speak for myself but I definitely felt his most powerful piece performed that night was the poem, Victor Jara, which was so chilling and penetratingly emotive, it felt like everyone in that room was moved. The next poet graced the stage in a somewhat unconventional manner jumping straight into song with the refrain ‘Oh man, oh man, the Caribbean woman!’ which was extremely hilarious and truthful in its approach to the typical Caribbean woman. She then performed her poem from a child perspective My Mummy gone over the Ocean which spoke of the illusion of England to those of Caribbean origin and the displacement to faced and felt when they arrived to find it not exactly as they imagined – basically a child who feels lost in a foreign country. She then performed a new work about reggae music which was a special treat indeed. Later outside I managed to get an autograph from John Agard (result!) and I would show you, but…well I don’t want to. Also he said he liked my name (extra result!). All in all, that was a very special event.
The next event, Gary Younge, for different reasons was equally as special, Tuesday 6th July. After the event, I remember people saying to me ‘How can one man be so wise?’ and explaining how they felt to needed to pick a random person on the street and explode with all they had learnt. I am some way through his enlightening book Who are we – And should it matter in the 21st Century? which I had only started on the day of the event. He thoroughly explored the concept of identity, touching on how now that national borders have come up, nationalism has gone up; instead of our relations becoming more friendly they have become more and more hostile with groups retreating into divided camps. Some of the things which he said were so true and resonated with me perfectly. For instance the argument that asylum seekers have become scapegoated by some as the cause of the problems in their lives – employment, housing, benefits etc – and so tougher measures have been introduced against asylum seekers but quality of life for the people who scapegoated them still hasn’t improved. A prime example of nationalism, when it is corrupted to attack other ‘groups’. He spoke of how we have to recognise the past of our identities and how the powerful have the luxury of forgetting this past. When asked what he identified himself as i.e. black male, he simply said ‘I am a human being above all’. I believe that everyone in that room at that point was stirred as the audience began to clap in response to that simple sentence. It simply exploited the nonsense of ‘race’. The way I see it there can not be a subgenre of race – there is one human race, and ultimately although we may look different we are essentially the same. This is what I felt he elaborated perfectly in the event and as I’m beginning to find out in his book which I highly recommend you purchase – not that you have to listen to my trivial recommendations, but well, it would be really, really nice of you if you did *Insert smiley face*. Fundamentally no matter what happens in our life, as he said, ‘The place that we finish is with our humanity’. So a giant thumbs up for that event.
The next event I attended, Andrea Levy, on Thursday 8th July, discussed the creation of her latest novel, The Long Song. It is set in Jamaica just after the Emancipation Act, the end of slavery, in the 19th century and follows the story of Miss July the narrator of the novel. Levy intends to blame this very narrator for any bad criticisms she receives apparently – ‘It wasn’t me, it was my narrator she’s rubbish!’ she joked, telling us that a major thing she had wanted to do was to have fun with the book. However fun was exactly what the research for the novel was not, as she described it ‘not so pleasurable’; throughout the three hundred years of slavery, there were only about three testaments of slave life from black people and endless ‘slim volumes’ written by white people in the Caribbean about the ‘negroes’. She therefore had to go through several of these volumes, all laced and coated in varying degrees of racism no matter how liberal the author thought they were, to find the characters of slaves within them. Yet she did get to go to Jamaica to see an old plantation site as part of her research which she believed opened her eyes about what living on a plantation must have really been like. She emphasised the unimaginable horror of the 300 hundred years of slavery and the mentality of the white people at the time, which allowed human beings to be so horrible towards each other. Even abolitionists were still racist – no one was talking about equality – ‘Slaves would be happy free’ was the thinking behind abolition. When asked if having to read the aforementioned ‘slim volumes’ made her angry she replied that she ‘only reserves anger for things I can change’. However she clearly wanted it to be known that the slaves fought back too and they had their own lives, that they saw ‘no dignity in being a victim’. She referred to those 300 hundred years as a whole in history – millions of lives for 300 years enslaved – ‘Not Britain at its finest hour, or 300 years in fact’. The mentality was so that nothing good was expected of the black slave but in her book she wanted to highlight how from a black perspective ‘they expected something of each other’. The mentality was so that black people policed a scheme involving gradation of colour because to breed their family to a whiter, fairer skin colour would have been to their advantage. I asked her if she felt that racism as a repercussion of slavery was no longer just a white on black thing but now spread to black on white, black on black and so on – She said then that racism was a ‘pernicious little sod’ to which I heavily agreed and she believed this was the case, but it was more deep rooted and complex. It was very clear that if anything anchors this new narrative - it’s history.
I later asked her if she was happy with the adaptation of Small Island which the BBC made recently to which she replied that she was pleased but it was ‘not as good as the book’, as it had left our several section and even a whole character and setting, but overall it was a good piece of television drama. She was signing books after the event but I had to dash off. However, I am definitely hoping to get hold of a copy of The Long Song soon and again I recommend you do, if you’ve decided after all this that I’m still worth listening to…
The last event I was able to attend that week was Congo Now! Though I did really want to see John Cooper Clarke too but timing did not allow this. Norbert Mbu-Mputu read his riveting poem Confusions, and Irish author Ronan Bennett, read from his new book The Catastrophist, he later explained that to him that the ‘colonisation of Congo seems particularly brutal’ making it a ripe setting for the book. Frederick Yamusangie, who I later interviewed, described the attitude to writers in Congo in the question they always ask him ‘Why you write? You have problem?’, whereas in the UK he’s always asked ‘What language do you write in?’ He replies ‘English’. They in shock say ‘Really? Are you sure?’ From this it became clear to me that there was a growing atmosphere expressing disdain at the fact that not enough was known about the situation in Congo in the UK. Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Human Rights Watch’s Africa division told us not a story but the powerful truth in the devastating events that happened to one man in his village. He saw every man and boy killed by one of the gangs that terrorised the Congolese villagers. He ran away until they had gone and when he came back he searched through the bodies hoping to find his wife alive, and he found her – raped and murdered, 80 years old – buried her where she was along with his daughters and granddaughters. He then spent the next four days burying everyone else as the villagers were all part of his extended family. This was powerful and I felt like everyone in the audience was deeply moved. The question ‘Does art have a responsibility to raise awareness of the problems in Congo?’ was posed. It clearly has a crucial role. Someone said ‘Art doesn’t really speak to the head, it speaks to the heart’ It was clear that they believe if art could strike the hearts of those it penetrated then sufficient change would come to the Congo. That is not to say, however that they themselves are not doing anything to try to improve the situation, Young people want their independence and women’s movement has arisen against the war on women, in that rape is the number one weapon. The slideshow behind them told me that in the DRC, one woman was raped every 30 minutes and even I who thought I had an idea of the situation realised that ‘The world thinks it knows but it doesn’t know’. I hope we all left that event with a sense of discovery of the pain in the DRC but also of the amazing creativity of the people as we all went too listen to the amazing Congolese artists there on the night who played magnificently and we all had a good dance, with Norbert Mbu-Mputu, getting us started. Adults of every age began to show off their moves, the good and the bad and the downright ugly all got on the dance floor in the Front Room of the Queen Elizabeth hall and let go of their inhibitions, soon there was no space left to dance!
So that has been my first week of the festival and I have certainly enjoyed it. I hope if you’re reading this you have too and like me, you extremely excited for the next week all that awaits us.